Dig. Yes, dig. Dig deep and dig often.
This has been my 5th visit to Armenia. In years past, I’ve been both a volunteer and a tourist: I’ve worked to renovate the school near the monastery at Tatev; I’ve met and stayed in an apartment in Yerevan with family friends; one year I was even tricked into being my friend’s engagement photographer (she told me we were coming to taste the fruits. Instead, for a month, I wound up living with her and her fiancé – of whose existence I knew nothing about until our plane’s tires hit the tarmac at Zvartnots. But that’s another story…). I considered myself a relatively seasoned veteran of traveling to Armenia. Well, to be fair, I was. The trouble is travelling to Armenia is a drastically different beast than living here. But, of course, that’s self evident. You want to hear the stories. I would too.
This year I spent three months in Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city but with roughly 1/10th of Yerevan’s population. It was here that I had the opportunity to make, I think, the following important observation and I hope it will be of some use to future volunteers: if you feel anything but violently ambivalent about this country, you’re doing something wrong. If you don’t come away having experienced heart wrenching pangs of both joy and sadness, then you have missed the point. If you are contented with taking things at face value or acquiring a superficial understanding of things, you will in all likelihood leave with an altogether…pleasant impression of Armenia. But most volunteers will not do this. Most volunteers, by the sheer fact that they have been attracted by such a loaded title as “birthright”, will be predisposed not to be contented with a simple veneer of their fatherland. Most volunteers will dig.
I did most of my volunteering at a non-governmental anti-corruption center/ journalist’s club in Gyumri called “Asparez” (I also had a brief stint at Armenian Caritas, a NGO that, among other services, provided in-home care to needy individuals and families). My coworkers were primarily young women – Naira, Lena, Shoghik, Emma, Arina, and Arpineh – ranging from 18-25 years of age. As they say, “eshi drakht ei ungel” (see: “I was in hog heaven”). I didn’t do any field work this time around; my main gig was teaching English and translating various texts. But being at this hub of information, both political and social, digging around was pretty much part of the package. In this regard, I was extremely lucky.
I can tell you that if you dig, you will find out what a “domik” is, what it looks like, what it smells like, which legally blind man lives alone in a particular one in the “Barracks” district; you will find out that besides the legally blind man, 7,500 families still live in domiks; you will understand the true nature of hospitality; you will realize where the mistrust of government stems from; you will understand how an absolute stranger can plop her rosy cheeked baby down in your lap as you’re going to work in a marshrutka; you will know why your host grandfather’s eyes glaze over whenever he talks about anything circa 1988; you will find out you have a world class artist living in the building adjacent to yours(see Maral’s travelogue) and that his son, who also paints spectacularly, is also black belt in karate; you will uncover that nearly all marshrutka’s are privately owned by the mayor and drivers pay 2,000 AMD a day to rent them; you will realize that the youth are bored and disenchanted; you will understand why everyone knows everything about everyone; you will realize why people want to leave…and why they want to stay.
Of course, digging around in Gyumri requires sifting through a lot of rubble. In most cases it’s psychological rubble. I met my host uncle Moso the very first night I was there. Just to preempt any misconceptions, I’m 25 years old. Moso recently turned 24. Given the frequency with which I saw him (not to mention his antics) he was more like a host brother than an uncle. Oh, and he was deaf…which was an interesting surprise for my first night there…especially considering I wasn’t given so much as a warning (thanks mom…thanks). But we got on along swimmingly. He taught me Armenian sign language (I don’t know if he was kidding or not, but the sign for “Gyumri” is apparently to beat your chest with your fists…like a silverback gorilla, while the sign for Yerevan kind of looks like playing the world’s tiniest violin). He also spent hours entertaining me with stories, just about his every day life, but he would gesticulate like a madman. He could read lips and he could even sound a few words, having lost his hearing when he was three years old. That is…21 years ago. That is…in 1988. One night, about two months into my home stay, at around 12, he came over after visiting his fiancé’s house (he’s also apparently quite the lady killer) and we sat down for some coffee. I forget how I brought it up, but he started telling me about his experience in the earthquake. Apparently, he was standing outside his school when buildings began collapsing. His father had rushed over to him and snatched him up, just as his own school began crumbling in front of his eyes. He didn’t hear after that.
Now, I can sing Birthright’s praises to the skies. I can tell you that, through the home stay experience, the excursions, the amiable and informed staff, Birthright truly allows one to have a deep and resounding experience here in Armenia; I could say it gives one the ability to dig and find things about the country, a city, a place, a person, even themselves that they would not have found out otherwise. I could say all this, but I’d sooner recommend that you find out for yourselves.